Early evening, and the still-blistering heat of Palm Springs, California conspires with the cooling blue of an outdoor swimming pool. I consider downing my Martini, ripping off my dinner wear and diving in.
An older gay gentleman with the right idea comes walking towards me, palm outstretched, smiling widely.
He wears not a stitch of clothing, save for some elaborate-looking, vigorously-bobbing genital jewellery.
I am, of course, unfazed. I’m staying at the clothing-optional, men-only Escape Resort Palm Springs [above], where I’ve quickly gotten used to nudity. Indeed, any embarrassment about my own birthday suit evaporated shortly after I arrived.
While trying to tan my backside, I crept further and further up my sun lounger to follow the rays and escape the shade (I was too lazy to get up and move it). Eventually, it tipped, and with legs akimbo, I fell off in front of the cute couple across the pool I’d been trying to impress. Through stifled laughter, they asked if I was OK.
Ultimately, I had to laugh myself. Because in this desert oasis, your worries disappear.
Palm Springs is hardly alone in being a bucket list destination for gay men. But look at its spiritual cousins: Berlin’s home to 3.7m, London to 8.1m, New York City to 8.5m… Palm Springs, meanwhile, is home to just 47,689. There are towns in my native England with more people I’ve never even heard of. Seriously, I’ve looked them up.
So what is it, exactly, that makes Palm Springs so special – for gay men, and for everyone? For starters, it’s the friendly locals: I’ve never sensed so many non-heterosexual people in one place before.
It’s encapsulated by the city’s all-LGBTI Democrat city council, comprised of three gay men, a trans woman and a bi woman. But to be completely honest, it was gay men specifically I saw everywhere I looked, from bartenders to builders to business owners. (For example, the lovely guys who run the gorgeous Japanese home goods retail store, Wabi Sabi Japan Living).
Meanwhile there’s an abundance of gay bars. They all have a flashy, old-fashioned feel (hipster dive bars are, for once, in short supply). Most boast throwback soundtracks and chilled outdoor spaces. They’re spread across the city, and yet are generally within walking distance of each other.
One big gayborhood
E Arenas Road is the closest thing to a strip, and buzzes with playful gay energy – karaoke, drag shows, show tunes – and is home to, among others, Street Bar, Score the Game Bar, Chill Bar Palm Springs, QUADZ Palm Springs, Spurline The Video Bar, Hunters Nightclub, and, adorably, a sort of bear-supermarket called Bear Wear Etc.
Then there’s the sheer number of accommodation options for gay men. I was given tours of clothing-optional resorts El Mirasol Villas, The Triangle Inn Palm Springs, Santiago Palm Springs [above], Tortuga Del Sol, most a stone’s throw from each other. Each has its own character, but all share the same relaxed and friendly vibe. I also asked each owner if they get on with their neighbours, and was easily convinced to the affirmative.
However, Escape was my base throughout my stay. I’ll remember it for its unfussy yet stylish appearance, its spacious, impeccably clean rooms, the extensive continental breakfast and the lovely, effusive staff.
Where snow-capped mountains meet desert
Of course, there’s more to Palm Spring than the queer scene. Cock ring aside, the most memorable moment of my trip was when it started snowing. Let me explain.
Palm Springs – and cradling it, Coachella Valley – enjoy/endure desert heat throughout the year, reaching highs of 47°C in July. As such, Greater Palm Springs Pride takes place in the cooler month of November, making it one of the latest in the US. (This year, it takes place from 1-4).
The sun was out in force when we visited in May. But scale the sheer cliffs of Chino Canyon, aboard the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, the largest rotating tramcar in the world, and you’ll typically find temperatures 30-40 degrees cooler.
After climbing 8,516 ft in 10 minutes, my travel companions and I found ourselves enveloped in a snowy, misty, alpine hinterland, unrecognizable from the sun-scorched rubble below. It was so misty, in fact, that we didn’t see any mountain goats. Sad face. But during kinder conditions, you might have more luck while exploring the 50 miles of hiking trails.
Perhaps my favorite thing about Palm Springs is the contrast between city and landscape. It has the chic finish of a large, cosmopolitan city, while also boasting the laid back vibes of a beachside town. But in truth, it couldn’t be further from either.
It’s a tiny, precious gem, inexplicably hidden among miles of rugged terrain. A drive/hike around the beguiling Joshua Tree National Park [above] is absolutely essential; the Flinstones-esque giant boulders really do look animated.
Due to its close proximity to LA (less than two hours by car, depending on the City of Angels’ hellish traffic), Palm Springs has always been a haven for Hollywood stars. Especially in the Golden Age, when they were contractually obliged to stay within a certain radius of their studio.
Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis are three of the most famous former residents. These days, it’s not uncommon to see the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio watering the garden of his vacation home here.
We saw the not-so-humble abodes of all the aforementioned on the Palm Springs Celebrity Tour. They’re generally low-level midcentury masterpieces – especially Elvis’s iconic House of Tomorrow – that are typical of the city’s bent towards modernist architecture. However, we were most excited to see Piazza de Liberace, the surprisingly modest digs of the late, great gay composer Liberace [above].
(By the way, our celebrity homes tour guide was a gay man. As was the guide who took us on our Desert Adventures Jeep Tour, in the mystical Indian Canyons, where he taught us about ancient rock formations and saved me from stumbling on a giant rattlesnake. This really happened.)
Dates for your diary
In addition to Pride (attended by 125,000+), Palm Springs plays host to two of California’s largest queer events.
LGBTI guys, head to White Party Palm Springs (returning 26-29 April 2019). For LGBTI girls, it’s Club Skirts Dinah Shore Weekend (returning 3-7 April 2019).
Of course, we must mention Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Or rather, Beychella. It takes place near the town of Indio, 23 miles from Palm Springs, and returns 12-21 April 2019. So basically, go to Palm Springs for the whole of April!
Where to eat and drink
Finally, irreverent sophistication pervades the Springs’ largely alfresco foodie scene, as it does everything else. We kicked things off with world cuisine and twilight patio dining at The Tropicale, gorging on impossibly fresh and light seafood. (I tried my first deep-friend, soft-shell crab – I urge you to take the plunge). I was taken with the throwback charm of the Coral Seas Lounge, all low lighting, leather booths and live band, and thus managed to convince my party to abandon the starlit sky for some indoor ambiance.
On day two we enjoyed a mimosa-laced lunch in the quaint courtyard of the dignified Jake’s Palm Springs. Here, I had my second-ever deep-fried soft-shell crab – served as a ‘BLT’ in a brioche roll – and it was as explosive as the first. We also raced through a peanut butter cheesecake and a coconut cake, which were two of the best desserts I’ve ever eaten.
Dinner that evening was enjoyed against the hot pink and white backdrop of the absurdly glamorous Eight4Nine. Daring portraits of celebrities adorn the walls, lampshades of various shapes and sizes hang from the ceiling; I can imagine Liberace liking what the website calls its ‘white patent leather Louis XIV ghost chairs’.
I opted for shellfish yet again, this time in mac and cheese form. In the best way possible, this dish – comprised of Maine lobster with gruyere, white cheddar and parmesan – was the richest thing I’ve eaten this year, and I still feel guilty about it.
On day three, we enjoyed another charming courtyard lunch at Las Casuelas Terraza, over mountains of fresh chips and guac and bowl-sized blood orange margaritas. I opted for chicken enchiladas and they were about 17 times better than the ones I used to make at uni.
I ate light that evening, at the sprawling, open-fronted LuLu California Bistro, pairing perfect tuna tartar with a Martini, figuring it’s the world’s most attractive-looking drink, and thus matched the super cool pop art-inspired decor. I’m now a convert for life.
Escape Resort Palm Springs
641 E San Lorenzo Rd, Palm Springs, CA 92264